Mississippi education funding formula revamp proposed

Published 8:34 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2016

By The Associated Press

Mississippi’s Republican legislative leaders said Tuesday that they want to rewrite the state’s nearly 20-year-old education funding formula to put more money into the classroom and less into administrative expenses.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn said the Senate Rules and House Management committees on Tuesday hired a private, nonprofit firm called EdBuild to examine how the state spends money on K-12 education. Gunn said the goal is to have a new formula that legislators could consider during the 2017 session.

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The current formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, was put into law by a Democratic-controlled Legislature in 1997 over the veto of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, but it has been fully funded only two years. It is designed to give each district enough money to meet midlevel academic standards.

Republicans have been in control of both chambers of the Legislature for the past five years.

MAEP was written before most schools had technology that is widely available now, including books that students can use through laptops or electronic tablets.

“It has been 20 years since this formula was created, and a lot has changed in that time, not only in the education arena but just in our world in general,” Gunn said. “So, it’s time to re-evaluate the effectiveness.”

EdBuild is based in New Jersey, and the firm was selected for the $250,000 contract without a bid process, the legislative leaders said. The state will pay $125,000, and private donors to EdBuild will pay the balance.

EdBuild was formed in 2014 and its founder and CEO, Rebecca Sibilia, is a former executive for StudentsFirst, a nonprofit group that promotes charter schools. Charters receive public money and are operated by private, nonprofit groups. Mississippi’s three current charter schools are all in Jackson, but Republican legislative leaders have expressed interest in expansion.

The company could issue a report to lawmakers in the next month or so, Gunn said, and legislators intend to hold public hearings before writing a bill to revamp the formula.

Nancy Loome is executive director of the Parents’ Campaign, a group that lobbies for public school funding. She said she’s skeptical about legislative leaders saying they want what they called a “student-centered” school budget formula.

“The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the DC-based corporate bill mill that lobbies for school privatization, is pushing model legislation called the ‘Student Centered Funding Act,'” Loome wrote in an email Tuesday.

Legislators put about $2.2 billion into MAEP for the year that started July 1, which was about $170 million short of full funding. However, they also put money into other specific education programs. During the past three years, the state has spent almost $50 million on literacy coaches, and fourth-graders’ reading scores improved on standardized national testing.

“If all we cared about was the politics of education funding, we could just take the money that we’re currently spending outside the formula, put it in the formula, call it full funding and then … everybody’s happy,” Reeves said. “But, it’s not about the politics of the funding formula. It’s about doing what’s best for kids.”

MAEP was written largely in response to equity-funding lawsuits being filed in other states, which challenged the level of money being spent in poorer districts compared to wealthier ones. Reeves said a new formula would also have to keep some elements of equity funding.